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Religion Library: Paganism

Vision for Society

Written by: Carl McColman

Pagans encompass the entire spectrum of social and political value systems. Adherents of this type of spirituality may in good conscience espouse liberal, conservative, moderate, libertarian, green, and other political values. This, in itself, offers an important clue to the Pagan vision for society: it is a society where freedom of thought, expression, and political ideas are foundational.

Although many Pagans identify with tribal or prehistoric social structures on a mythic or spiritual level, they also generally accept and espouse the values of liberal democracy. Many promote social change of some form, usually involving the promotion of non-sexist, non-homophobic, non-hierarchical, and even non-monogamous social values, although some minority groups (particularly among ethnic reconstructionist pagans) espouse less liberal positions. Alongside such progressive social values, many Pagans advocate environmentalism (although ideas about how environmentalism should be promoted vary; for example, libertarian Pagans might advocate for a free market approach to environmental responsibility, while left-leaning Pagans might argue for social policies to promote or enforce environmentalist policy initiatives).

One of the first well-known Pagan leaders to actively promote social activism as an outgrowth of her religious practice was Starhawk.  After her first book (The Spiral Dance [1979], an introductory text to witchcraft), Starhawk wrote several books about social and political activism from the perspective of promoting ecofeminist values. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Starhawk had emerged as a public figure as renowned for her activism as for her religious beliefs. Her work includes training others in nonviolence and direct action, and supporting the peace movement, women's movement, environmental movement, and the anti-globalization movement.

In her book Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery (1987) Starhawk suggests that power can function in three ways: "power-over," "power-from-within," and "power-with." "Power-over" is power wielded by the privileged to dominate or control others. "Power-from-within," by contrast, is power not concentrated in the hands of a few, but rather power that emerges within individuals to enable them to reach their full potential and to engage creatively with others. "Power-with" is the healthy social alternative to "power-over." "Power-with" is the egalitarian and truly democratic exercise of power in which peers join together to share power in common. Most of what is wrong in contemporary society can be traced back to toxic forms of dominating power. Thus the way to transform society is to encourage all people (and particularly those who traditionally have been denied access to power) to manifest their power-from-within, and then to join together with others as equals to create shared, healthy, non-dominating power structures in order to create a truly just and good social order.

Selena Fox, the founder of Circle Sanctuary in Wisconsin, engages in a variety of social and environmental initiatives. She is the founder of the Lady Liberty League, devoted to promoting religious tolerance, especially (but not exclusively) for Pagans; through Circle Sanctuary she has led efforts toward nature preservation and environmental education. The Circle community engages in a variety of social ministries, including prison ministry, food drives, and public education on nature spiritualities. In 2005 Circle was in the forefront of "the pentacle quest," the successful legal effort to force the Veterans Administration to permit pentacle-marked headstones and memorials for Wiccan military veterans.

In 2005, Llewellyn Publishers released a collection of essays called Pagan Visions for a Sustainable Future, edited by Ly de Angeles, Emma Restall Orr, and Thom van Dooren. This anthology features a variety of perspectives on the question of how Pagans envision a good society and what it will take to bring such visions to fruition. Topics covered include the ethics of Paganism (focusing on the question of "sacred relationships"), the relationship between magic and ecology, the role of shamanism in social and environmental change, telling the truth as a political act, and the value of sacred community. Taken as a whole, these essays celebrate the promise of Paganism to create a future in which humankind lives in harmony with the earth, spirituality grounded in magic will empower individuals and strengthen communities, and the human family will move beyond sexism, racism, and heterosexism, creating instead a culture where individuals are free to reach their full potential without artificial limitations imposed by social restraints.

Despite the prominence of ecofeminist values and social activism within the Pagan community, not all individuals and groups espouse such perspectives. It is possible to be a Pagan and be non-political, conservative, or libertarian. Many practitioners are enthusiastic supporters of their nation's military. Others see no essential contradiction between Paganism and acceptance of the social and political status quo. Nevertheless, for many Pagans, part of the experience of embracing nature-based, goddess-oriented, or polytheistic spirituality is also embracing the ability to envision a different social order for the future, in which personal liberties (particularly concerning sexuality and gender) are maximized, current social and economic problems are addressed by a return to tribal or communal values, and care for the earth (including the adoption of sustainable environmental practices) is considered a key social value.

Study Questions:
     1.    What do Pagans hold as a vision for society?
     2.    Why is social change important to many within the Pagan tradition?
     3.    Who is Starhawk? What does she offer?
     4.    What has the Lady Liberty League worked toward?

 
     
     
     

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